California spent $ 1.7 billion on a COVID testing contract. Was it worth it?

According to district documents, 22 companies were assessed through a fast-track bidding process, and SummerBio offered the lowest price by far, between $ 38 and $ 166 less than other diagnostic companies, including major players like Curative and Fulgent.

The state paid PerkinElmer about $ 740 million for the tests in the past year. Most of the costs are recovered through federal funds and health insurance payments, according to the state health department. In contrast, LA Unified is expected to spend $ 350 million for the entire school year and test far more people per week than the Valencia lab. The district will also recover the costs through federal grants to reopen schools and federal emergency funds.

“Cost comparisons between labs are difficult as a lab’s testing modalities vary due to differences in the scope of their contracts and the configuration of each lab,” health officials said. in a press release sent by email.

The Department of Health did not respond to questions about whether other providers were considered or whether the department tried to negotiate a lower rate with PerkinElmer.

Representatives for SummerBio declined to comment on the Valencia lab, but said the company has been in contact with state officials.

Beutner said he informed the governor’s office of LA Unified’s plans out of courtesy, months before the PerkinElmer contract was announced. As the largest district in the state – and second in the country – LA Unified’s contracts are often backed by other districts and government organizations.

“The simplest way to put it is that they [state health officials] weren’t particularly responsive or interested, ”Beutner said.

By the time the state lab opened in October 2020, LA Unified was on track to develop its own in-house testing infrastructure. And the state test – which cost schools $ 55 at the time – was still much more expensive.

Too little, too late – or a lifeline for schools?

Like LA Unified, the San Diego Unified School District began developing its testing plans long before the state’s PerkinElmer lab was a resource. The district tests about 25,000 students per week, which represents about a quarter of its student body.

“Just talking about our experience, our district, we always had to act quickly and strategize because, you know, waiting for the state would just have taken too long,” said the chairman of the board, Richard Barrera.

San Diego Unified performs a limited number of bundled tests for free through the state lab, but the bulk of its testing is done through a private vendor.

The district initially contracted with UC San Diego to offer testing to students and staff at around $ 40 per test before moving on to another provider, which charges around $ 60 per test, when the university couldn’t. no longer meet its testing needs. At the time, there were few state guidelines for school testing, causing headaches for school administrators.

The state charged schools $ 55, which made the district’s contract with UC San Diego less expensive. Now, although the school district is paying a private vendor significantly more than the state’s reduced price of $ 21, Barrera has said it is too late for the district to change. The district has already built capacity through a private provider and has established procedures for obtaining parental consent, informing them of test results, training staff and tracing contacts.

“The last thing we would want to do now that we are finally able to scale with private providers would be to walk away and do something with the state and then end the state program,” a- he declared. “Then we start from scratch. “

State officials say the lab is needed to reach communities with few resources. Barrera said that for small districts, state support is likely crucial in keeping children in classrooms.

Most of the school tests were funded by the state through federal grants.

Long Beach Unified uses the state’s PerkinElmer Valencia lab. But after January, Long Beach administrators say the district will be responsible for paying for tests. At the height of its efforts, which averaged between 6,000 and 12,000 tests per day, officials at Long Beach said other vendors couldn’t handle the volume, though there were some early issues. concerning the slowness of state results. At the now reduced cost of $ 21 to school districts, officials in Long Beach have said the state lab is one of the cheapest testing options.

South of Modesto, in the Unified School District of Ceres, administrators say they have worked closely with the state’s Valencia laboratory for molecular PCR testing. Several months ago they had problems with false positives from the lab.

“We were told by the lab that a few tests were positive, but when they were retested with another organization they were negative,” said Edith Narayan, district student services coordinator. There haven’t been any recent problems.

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